Transforming Christians to Transform Culture

Archive for April, 2012

All of the Sin, None of the Guilt

Posted on April 30, 2012

It’s utterly erroneous to assume that the gospel is failing in modern culture.  The gospel is more pervasive than ever.  The problem is that it’s a false gospel.

The Atlantic’s recent article “Lady Gaga’s Guilt-Free Gospel” raises the specter of Lady Gaga, apparently reared a “repressed” Catholic but whose musical lyrics now exalt sadomasochism and rape fantasies.   Today this world icon pop artist preaches a gospel of self-expression and –exaltation.  Above all, hers is a guiltless gospel:

Gaga … luxuriates in the absence of guilt. Again and again on Born This Way, she encourages her “Little Monsters” — these are her fans — to reject, defy, outwit, and ignore external judges of behavior: parents, boyfriends, kids at school. But internal shame — vestigial Catholic guilt, held over from Sunday School — for, say, premarital sex, dressing funny, hooking up with members of one’s own gender? For Gaga, such feelings are incomprehensible. She is certain of her own righteousness; her emotional enemy is not shame but insecurity.

The right Gospel — the Christian Gospel — depicts guilt in both its objective and subjective manifestations.  We are objectively guilty before God, because we have broken his law.  In short, we have sinned: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19).

This objective guilt before a holy God rightly induces subjective guilt, “guilt feelings,” as we say today: “‘And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise [his] eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Lk. 18:13).

People who are objectively guilty because of their sin should feel subjectively guilty: they have broken God’s holy law, and they incite his judgment.  Subjective guilt prods them to appeal to God abolish their objective guilt.

This solution to both objective and subjective guilt is repentance and confession of our sin and utter reliance on the atoning work of Jesus Christ to save us (Rom. 3:21-26; 1 Jn. 1:9).

It’s possible because of false teaching and assumptions to suffer subjective guilt when there’s nothing to be guilty about.  Fundamentalists are routinely accused of this error: defining (for example) tobacco and alcohol consumption  and movie attendance as sin, thereby inducing feelings of guilt in those who violate these man-made moral codes, which are not, in fact, sin (1 Cor. 8:7).

In massive and lethal overreaction to this guilt-inducing moralism, the Lady Gagas of the world (and even some in the church) have abolished guilt from the pantheon of human existence.

Sinful humanity loves to get its way without divine interference (Gen. 3), and the guiltless gospel attempts to remove one of the final barriers to full human autonomy: God gave humanity a conscience to prick us when we break his law, in order to drive us to him for forgiveness and salvation (Jn. 8:9; Rom. 2:15; Heb. 10:22).

But when we purge guilt from our lives, we are actually saying that we don’t need salvation from sin, only from our own self-induced limitations and insecurities.

This is Gaga’s guiltless Gospel.  It implicitly declares: “I am not a sinner before God. God exists to make me all I was intended to be.  I am in charge of my life. I save myself by purging all my self-limitations.”

This is a false gospel that sends people like Lady Gaga to Hell — unless they acknowledge their guilt before God and repent.

Lady Gaga and her “Little Monsters” need more guilt, not less.

But theirs is a very prominent gospel in an age that prizes autonomy above all else.

This is the gospel — the gospel of damnation, not salvation.

On Cowering Before Scarecrows

Posted on April 30, 2012

“[I]f the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult … some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God’s Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.”

Bruce Waltke

Waltke, one of the premier and gifted evangelical Old Testament scholars of our time, worries that if the empirical data supports evolution yet evangelicals oppose it, we will (rightly) end up being viewed as a cult by the wider, enlightened culture. Waltke is only the latest example in an esteemed pedigree of Christians going back at least to Clement of Alexandria and in more recent centuries to the towering father of theological liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher.  The latter’s On Religion: Speeches to Cultured Despisers was, as its title indicates, calculated to smooth the way for the cultured literati of the 19th century to accept the seemingly outmoded religion of the Bible. Schleiermacher’s strategy was to transform Christianity from an affirmation of objective revelation in Jesus and the Bible to an interior feeling of dependence, serious reflection on which generated doctrine, practice, and the church.  This strategy of religious interiorization was well suited for a Romantic Age that had come to prize the inner self but could not shake off the gains of Enlightenment, which dictated a neutral scientific objectivity in the external, “real” world. Schleiermacher was among the first to beat a hasty religious retreat from empirical reality into the internal world (Francis Schaeffer later termed this move “leaping into the upper story”), but the price he paid for his interiorization project was high.  He set a course for Christianity according to which its sails were always set by the prevailing cultural winds, and his retreat to the interior guaranteed that the Faith could never challenge those trends in the external world.

Waltke, who holds the Bible in high regard, has suggested nothing so revolutionary; but his anxiety over evolution highlights how easy it is for even evangelical scholars to permit the perceptions of a culture (actual or perceived) to shape their theological views. If the first chapters of Genesis permit theistic evolution (in my view, they do not), Christians should be open to that possibility.  But they should be open to it on exegetical grounds, not on the grounds that not to affirm it may render them vulnerable to the charge of cultic belief.

Relish the Scandal

Biblical teaching is, after all, scandalous — and it always has been.  If man is a sinner, in rebellion against God, any divine teaching that rubs against his rebellion will not be popular.  This is nothing new.  In the ancient Near East, God’s command that the Jews practice strict heterosexual fidelity could hardly have been popular amid pagan tribes that valued indiscriminate sex.  In the Roman Empire, homosexuality was routine, even for married men.  New Testament sexual standards, therefore, were anything but trendy.  Again, Greco-Roman thought derided the body, and the doctrine of the resurrection was therefore deemed outrageous — even unthinkable.  From the very beginning, Christianity was deemed odd and quirky by the trendy culture-setters. Imagine Paul saying: “[I]f the data is overwhelmingly opposed to resurrection, to deny that reality will make us a cult…some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God’s Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.”  The cultural perceptions of unbelievers has never been a criterion of authentic Faith. God is not interested in whether his revelation passes muster with intellectual rebels — and he never has been.

Biblical and Natural Revelation

Waltke is fully committed to serious interaction with God’s revelation in the world around us (“natural revelation”).  So am I.  God’s creation is no less revelation than the Bible and Jesus Christ himself.  In light of the cultural mandate in Genesis 1, Christians should be at the forefront of the scientific endeavor to investigate creation to glorify God and benefit humanity.  But scientific methodology is not neutral, as secular scientists usually suppose that it is, and all modes of God’s revelation are mutually conditioning — our knowledge of creation helps us to understand the Bible (if nothing else, we must know language in order to read it), and the Bible helps us interpret creation.  The Bible, in fact, is God’s fullest and clearest revelation to his church.  This is why we do not interpret Biblical revelation in light of natural revelation but vice versa.  Almost every attempt historically to interpret the Bible in light of nature concludes with man’s autonomous efforts to subvert Biblical teaching.  This was the precise course of 19th century higher Biblical criticism: in treating the Bible like any other book and reducing its production to the forces of mere human history, Christians surrendered the Faith.  The same thing happened a century before when Deism interpreted creation as excluding divine intervention: Jesus was reduced to a great man, and the Biblical miracles were deemed the apostles’ inventions. We must face squarely the reality that this treachery to the Faith was done under the guise of fidelity to creation.

Needless Anxiety

The principal reason for the priority of the Bible is that godly man lives by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).  God invites us to trust his bare word in spite of the “assured interpretation” of what we observe (Heb. 11).  The point is not that God arranges creation to deceive us (of course, he doesn’t), but he does arrange creation to test whether we will trust his word: think of Adam and Eve in the garden, of the old covenant Jews as well as Jesus in the wilderness, and of Job in his trials.  All were charged to trust the bare word of the living God in spite of how they may have interpreted the revelation surrounding them.  For this reason, if the Bible clearly teaches that God created the world in six ordinal days, any supposed empirical evidence to the contrary is wrong.  To secularists and to Christian latitudinarians, this tack is obscurantism.  To Bible-believing Christians, it is faith.  This faith does not retreat into the religious interior but boldly challenges every non-Biblical pretension to scientific fact in the external, “real” world.

Christians need not worry about what Helmut Theilike once termed “the baying hounds of the Enlightenment.” The alleged assured results of modern science change from generation to generation.  Recall that Newtonian physics has been seriously qualified by Einsteinian physics and that Einsteinian physics has in turn been greatly modified by quantum mechanics — all within the last 100 years. In contrast, God’s word is unchanged and unchanging: “The grass withers, the flower fades, [b]ut the word of our God stands forever….” (Is. 40:8).

If Christians resort to popping anxiety pills over the fact that trend-hungry scientistic worldlings might hint that devout Bible-believers who deny theistic evolution are a cult, they cower before scarecrows.  God’s unchanging word stands above and judges all human opinions, and we betray that word if we compromise it to avoid scoffing by sinners hostile to Biblical truth.

The truth, as Tertullian once wrote, need never blush.

Those Long-Lived Last Days

Posted on April 21, 2012

In recent times, we have heard a lot about “The Last Days.” A large number of non-mainline conservative Christians in this country (“evangelicals”) believe that we are living in the last few years (or even months, or days, or hours) before the “rapture” of the church, which will precede a seven-year tribulation period dominated by a single, sinister figure known as “The Antichrist,” followed by the Second Coming of Christ at which He will establish an earthly, visible, thousand-year reign in Jerusalem. This is classic or “scholastic” dispensational eschatology. Today we witness the queer coincidence of, on the one hand, the refusal of almost any leading conservative seminary in the country to defend classical dispensationalism with, on the other hand, the dramatic revival of dispensational eschatology in the form of the staggering series of best-selling novels in the Left Behind phenomenon. What is indefensible in the seminaries is indefatigable in the bookstores.

The notion that in the Bible “The Last Days” denotes the final few years or months before Christ’s Second Advent reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Biblical eschatology (the doctrine of last things). Proof that this view is mistaken appears in prominent statements like those of Peter in Acts 2, quoting Joel in describing the events of that first post-resurrection Pentecost as inaugurating “The Last Days,” during which “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (v. 17). In his first epistle, John writes (2:18), “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.” Jude writes similarly in v. 18 of his epistle. And the writer of Hebrews declares (1:1-2).

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds….

Whatever else these statements denote, they certainly indicate that their human authors recognized the days in which they lived as “The Last Days.”

Consistent dispensationalism is forced to argue in the light of passages like these that “The Last Days” did in fact begin at Pentecost but were “postponed” when God “withdrew” the offer of the kingdom to unbelieving Jews. There is not a shred of Biblical evidence to support this view, which is maintained only to conform to a preconceived theological system. The ministry of Paul himself was immersed in the kingdom of God (Ac. 20:25; 28:31; 1 Cor. 4:20; Col. 1:13; 4:11). Christ’s earthly kingdom and reign are not postponed until the Second Advent. They are events continuous with Jesus Christ’s resurrection (Acts 2:22-36). Christ is presently reigning at His Father’s right hand, and we are living in “The Last Days.”

The “Time Between”

“The Last Days,” in fact, refers to the entire inter-advental era – more specifically, to the period between Christ’s past bodily resurrection and His future bodily return. Why is it termed “The Last Days”? Because it is the last epoch or period of God’s redemptive work in the earth. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that when Christ returns, “then cometh the end, when He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:27). That is, there is no period of redemptive history subsequent to Christ’s Second Coming. “The Last Days” is the consummation of redemptive history – when we bask and work within the victory of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and session.

We sometimes speak of about A.D. 34-90 or 100 as the “apostolic age”; but in a profound sense, the entire inter-advental era is the apostolic age. It is true that the apostles and their miracles and certain other works seemed unique to their lifetimes. For one thing, the requirements of an apostle cannot be met in the modern era (Ac. 1:21-22). Theirs was, in fact, a unique, unrepeatable era of redemptive history (Heb. 9:26-28).

We must never allow these facts, however, to deter us from recognition that the message of the apostolic era and its effects are designed to cover the entire inter-advental age. Thefirst days of “The Last Days” were the historical age of the apostles, whose authority and message and power persist into the present and will persist until Christ’s Second Advent. While in the chronology of history we are far removed from the first century, in the theology of history we united to that age. In salvation history, we are as close to the resurrection of Christ as the first-century apostles were, just as they were as close to the Second Advent as we are today. The first-century Christians did not know when the Lord would return any more than we do. What they did know – and what we should know – is that the great, decisive event of history is past, not future. The great battle has been won on the Cross and in the empty tomb. Salvation history in Christ is a unit, beginning with His birth and ending with His delivering His kingdom to His Father (1 Cor. 15:24). His atoning death and bodily resurrection stand at the center of this history and in fact constitute the gospel (1 Cor. 15: 1-8). All of this hangs together as a cluster of events in one overarching history.

The Eschatological Expectation

This readily explains many of the New Testament writers’ apparent expectation of the Second Coming within their lifetimes. While Christ Himself did not expressly teach this, and in fact implied otherwise (Mk. 13:32-37; Lk. 12:37-48), it points out that the apostles were dramatically aware, as many of today’s Christians are not, of the basic meaning of “The Last Days” in redemptive history. Their consciousness of the relative nearness of the Second Coming is not equivalent to today’s sort of dispensational date-setting, about which our Lord Himself warned His followers (Mt. 24:42; Ac. 1:6-8). They were not aware of the timing of Christ’s Second Coming; and, in fact, it seems that Christ Himself in His incarnate but pre-resurrection state was not aware of the exact time of His coming, having intentionally limited His divine omniscience (Mk. 13:24-32). The theologically liberal accusations that the New Testament writers taught that Jesus Christ would return in their own lifetimes (thus denying Biblical infallibility) is no less erroneous than is the notion by some conservatives that we must attribute most or all of such texts to the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 in order to maintain the integrity of the Bible’s infallibility.

Both of these views constitute a critical misunderstanding of the nature of redemptive history. The New Testament writers were not attempting to set forth a “futurist” eschatology. Vos and Gaffin are correct to assert that for the New Testament writers, eschatology was a present reality. In the Person of Jesus Christ, the future had invaded the present, because the (recent) past had re-shaped all history from beginning to end.

Postmillennialism

This is a hefty support for postmillennialism, despite the fact that a lot of amillennialists hold it. The advancement of the kingdom of God that the Old Testament predicts and New Testament attests centers in the redemptive-historical work of Jesus Christ. This kingdom, which will overspread the earth and dominate every area of life and thought by means of the preaching and acceptance of the gospel, is a present reality, though it is worked out under God’s sovereign hand incrementally in history (Dan. 2; Mt. 13:31-33). This advancing kingdom is “The Last Days.” During this period, there is often great opposition to the gospel, but the gospel will win out. There will be great depravity (2 Tim. 3:1) but all enemies (except death) will be vanquished before Christ returns (1 Cor. 15:22-28). All of the Old Testament prophecies of a godly earth will be fulfilled as a result of the preaching of the gospel and the operation of the Spirit of God. “The Last Days” are not the days of anxiety over the decline of the kingdom and the apostasy of the church; they are the days of battle against an already defeated foe — a “mopping up” operation:

The decisive battle in a war may already have occurred in a relatively early stage of the war, and yet the war still continues. Although the decisive effect of that battle is perhaps not recognized by all, it nevertheless already means victory. But the war must still be carried on for an undefined time, until “Victory Day.” Precisely this is the situation of which the New Testament is conscious…. [T]he event on the cross, together with the resurrection which followed, was the already concluded decisive battle…. The chief point in question, therefore, is not the limitation that the imminent end will come within a generation, although this limitation is actually present in the New Testament. The theologically important point in the preaching of the nearness of the Kingdom of God is not this fact, but rather the implicit assertion that since the coming of Christ we already stand in a new period of time, and that therefore the end has drawn nearer (Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time).

The Second Coming is ever before the eyes of the apostles (just as it should ever be before our eyes), not because we expect to escape from the earth, but precisely because it signals the dramatic continuation of the earth’s Christianization secured definitively by the Lordship of Christ, His present rule from the heavens (Ac. 2:23-36).

A Future Alive and Well on Planet Earth

God is intensely interested in this earth as His creation, and He will not abandon it. The Bible, for example, does not teach that all Christians will live together with the Lord eternally in heaven. Rather, it states that the New Jerusalem will descend to the earth (a renovated earth [2 Pet. 3:10-13]) in which God will dwell with men forever (Rev. 21:1-3). In short, the entire inter-advental era constitutes “The Last Days,” God’s final period of redemptive accomplishment. However, it is not God’s final era of purifying sanctification for earth. This Christianization consisting of full sanctification will be God’s final, enduring work of purification after Christ returns. All enemies but one will be put down beforethe Second Coming. That final enemy to be subordinated is death (1 Cor. 15:26). Death – and the sin that fuels it – will survive within “The Last Days”; it will not be defeated with finality until Christ returns to initiate the final resurrection and the final judgment.

Christians aware of redemptive history, therefore, anticipate the Second Coming as a time when they will see their Lord face to face (Rev. 22:4), and when the work of worldwide Christianization will receive its final catapult into definitive earthly perfection. The Second Coming is the destination of redemptive history; and the desire for it burns within knowledgeable believers, not because they wish an escape from the world, but precisely because they wish a more Christian world. The Second Coming introduces a radical discontinuity into history, but it maintains a radical continuity in the Christianization that occurs within that history. In this sense, the millennium is the period of partial, progressive Christianization that ushers in the full, definitive Christianization of eternity.

“The Last Days” is the time of the great harvest, of Christ’s incrementally trampling down His enemies by the power of the gospel. The definitive victory on the Cross gives way to the final “mop-up operation” that will conclude at Christ’s Second Coming. “The Last Days” is a time of excitement and ecstasy, of trial and hardship, of temporary defeat and permanent victory, of the worldwide expansion of the kingdom of God. It is a time of the “already/not yet” – the already of Christ’s universal mediatorial reign within time and history, the “not yet” of remnants of the Second Adam and of sin that war against the incursion of the kingdom of God and the new age (Rom. 7).

We are called in “The Last Days” to faithfulness – and to victory in every area of thought, life, and society.

Select Bibliography

Berkouwer, G. C. The Return of Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.

Boettner, Loraine. The Millennium. no loc.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1957.

Cullmann, Oscar. Christ and Time. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950.

—-. Salvation in History. New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, 1967.

Dawson, Christopher. “Religion and Life.” Enquiries into Religion and Culture. London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1933, 292-310.

Gaffin, Richard B., Jr., Resurrection and Redemption. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed (1978), 1987.

Kydd, Ronald A. N. Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984.

Pentecost, Dwight J. Things to Come. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958, 463-466.

Ridderbos, Herman. Paul: An Outline of His Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.

Vos, Geerhardus. The Pauline Eschatology. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed (1930), 1986.

Werner, Martin. The Formation of Christian Dogma. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

Baptism, Covenant, Renunciation and Allegiance

Posted on April 21, 2012

Baptism in much of the modern church has degenerated into an effete and perfunctory ordinance, practiced more for traditional than for substantial reasons. Where it is not treated as divine white magic in sacerdotal churches, it is frequently in more evangelical churches treated in a mindless and mechanical way. The error is not merely the reductionistic denial of baptism as a sacrament among the evangelicals, but also the neglect of its essentially covenantal and moral character that penetrates the very heart of the meaning of Christianity.

In sharp contrast to this reductionistic view, the church historic perceived the great significance of baptism, including its oath-bound character. Of the practice of baptism in the early medieval church, Schaff observes:

In the act of baptism itself, the candidate first, with his face toward the west, renounced Satan and all his pomp and service; then, facing the east, he vowed fidelity to Christ, and confessed his faith in the triune God, either by rehearsing the Creed, or in answer to questions. Thereupon followed the threefold or the single immersion in the name of the triune God, with the following of the name of the candidate, the deacons and deaconesses assisting. [Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), p. 487]

Less significant than the baptismal modality and procedure is the signification: the initiate renounces Satan and life under his authority while affirming Christ and his. In the Reformed view later developed, this renunciation and affirmation were seen in a covenantal context. As Bannerman notes of the two sacraments:

They are federal [covenantal] acts,-seals and vouchers of the covenant between God and the believer. They presuppose and imply a covenant transaction between the man who partakes of them and God; and they are the attestations to and confirmations of that transaction, pledging God by a visible act to fulfill His share of the covenant, and engaging the individual by the same visible act to perform his part in it. [James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (Edmonton, Canada: Still Waters {1869}, 1991), 12]

In baptism, as in communion, the adult initiate pledges himself (and, if applicable, his children) to the Christian Faith. This pledge, however, includes the renunciation of Satan and his kingdom. Thus St. Paul states in 1 Cor. 10:21, “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakes of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.”

The neglect of the covenantal signification of the sacraments quite naturally issues from a neglect of the necessity of renouncing the world and pledging oneself to Christ in the modern church. Much of the modern church is interested in conforming to the temper of the times, not in following Christ and his infallible word when that tack becomes unpopular. For example, major denomination are now ordaining women elders and some even homosexuals, thereby jettisoning clear Biblical teaching (1 Tim. 2:12) as well as the position of the undivided church catholic until late this century. Only the most naive and prejudiced would deny that the pressures of a feminized modernity and homosexualized culture motivated this erroneous decision. As the late Francis Schaeffer stated: accommodation leads to accommodation leads to accommodation.

Conversely, the oath taken at Christian baptism includes the intent to follow Christ and his inscripturated word, not the temper of the times. Moreover, it entails a renunciation of all allegiance to Satan and his hosts and kingdom-a denial of self-will, the determination to be one’s own god, and the worship of any but God. It equally entails a repudiation of all that the word of God prohibits. A chief dimension of the signification of baptism is that we cannot make our own rules. We are bound by the terms of the new covenant (Heb. 8:10). We are under the command of Another, the Captain of our salvation (Heb. 2:10).

The Christian commitment is in essence covenantal allegiance (2 Cor. 3:6-4: 7). It is not good-feeling religion bolstered by pastoral and musical entertainment every Sunday. It is not weepy religious sentiment generated by Christian romance novels. It is not laughing bouts stimulated by a “Holy-Ghost bartender.” It is not emotional hot flashes experienced in an Arminian altar call. Christian commitment is covenantal allegiance to the King.

To claim that saving faith may not persevere and that one who does not persevere in faith may nonetheless be saved is a travesty  [see Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free! (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 63, 69, 107, 11, passim]. This is the view of the opponents of the so-called “lordship salvation,” which is, after all, nothing more than Christian orthodoxy. Justification is appropriated exclusively by faith apart from any merit or works, but God justifies none whom he sanctifies. As the Puritans stated, “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.”

To love God with all one’s heart, soul, and might is to act on a pledged allegiance to the covenantal stipulations of the King (Dt. 6:1-9). We cannot sever obedience from devotion any more than we can works from faith (Jas. 2:14-26). The individual with white-hot devotion to God is the one who has pledged his allegiance to the King and who manifests that allegiance in his conformity to the inscripturated law-word of God.

Do you manifest this allegiance in your life?

Salvation and Works

Posted on April 21, 2012

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

INTRODUCTION

One should expect that in a matter as crucial as personal salvation, Satan will work diligently and subtly to introduce confusion and error into the thinking not only of the unconverted but also of professed Christians. An almost infallible litmus test of the validity of a religion is its teaching with respect to individual salvation. If that teaching reflects and takes into account the entire range of Scriptural data it may be judged valid; if it distorts the Scriptural message of salvation, on the other hand, it must be rejected, no matter how its teaching on other doctrines and practices may conform to the Scriptural message.

One of the classic texts of Scripture pertaining to the doctrine of salvation is Ephesians 2:8-10, inasmuch as it clearly sets forth the proper relationship between salvation and good works. It is surely not the only Scripture describing this relationship, but it is one of the most succinct and clearest.

The purpose of this essay is to examine briefly the teaching of Eph. 2:8-10 with regard to the relationship between salvation and works and refute two chief heresies arising from a misunderstanding of that relationship.

GOOD WORKS CANNOT MERIT SALVATION

In 2:1-7 Paul has discussed the sinful state and actions of the Ephesians previous to their regeneration, and has pointed out that “God who is rich in mercy,…when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)” (vv. 4,5); in vv. 6,7 he reveals the ultimate aim of regeneration: our heavenly abode with Christ that will demonstrate his incomparable grace. He then states that it is by grace that we are saved through the instrument of faith, “and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” Exegetes dispute the antecedent of “it” in the last expression. Does “it” refer to “faith,” thus teaching that faith itself is a gift of God; or does “it” refer to the entire clause “by grace are ye saved through faith”? My opinion is that “faith” is the antecedent of “it,” and that faith is in fact specifically stated to be “a gift of God.” Frankly, however, it makes little practical difference if the word it refers to the entire clause, because the meaning is essentially the same: salvation is a gift of God, and faith is an aspect of salvation. On the basis of this statement concerning grace, Paul remarks, “Not of works, lest any man should boast.” We may infer from v. 9 that insofar as securing salvation is concerned, grace and works are antithetical (see, in addition, Rom. 11:6). The whole concept of grace excludes human works as a source of merit for salvation. This teaching refutes the heresies of Roman Catholicism; Pelagianism; the rationalistic school within Arminianism; and, obviously, most cults. The Bible’s teaching is that it is not on account of any of our own good works that salvation can be obtained. From a practical standpoint, the good-works heresy is so deadly because it diminishes the glory of God and draws attention to human works in which one may “boast.” But the most objectionable feature of that heresy is that it attacks the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work in his life and particularly on the cross (see Heb. 9). Christ’s active and passive obedience on our behalf eliminates any need for human action to pacify God’s wrath; and, in fact, any attempts to merit God’s salvific favor dilute the grace, kindness, love, and mercy of God (Titus 3:4,5). Paul in Philippians 3:1-9 unequivocally discloses the truth that one’s own righteousness (and “righteousness” implies good works since Paul specifically mentions his Pharisaic works in this passage) is equated with “dung,” and consequently cannot in any way contribute to one’s salvation.

Religious activities, including penance, baptism, charity, sacraments, church attendance, and so forth may have special value but not within the sphere of securing salvation.

GOD THE WORKMAN

Immediately after stating salvation cannot be secured by good works, Paul declares, “for we are [God’s] workmanship,” implying that the reason it is unnecessary for humanity to work in order to obtain salvation is that God himself has performed the work; and that concept is amply supported by Paul’s very theme in the book of Ephesians and by the rest of Scripture. In Eph. 1 he catalogs in vv. 1-12 numerous benefits our salvation provided by Christ confers on us, but not once does he indicate man has any role in obtaining these benefits: blessed with spiritual blessings, elected, predestinated, accepted in the beloved, redeemed, forgiven, united with Christ, etc. Verse 12 reveals “belief” and “trust” are instruments in securing those benefits, but they can never serve as the ground of our salvation, which elsewhere is said to be Christ’s death for us (see 1 Pet. 3:18).

Because God through his Son Jesus Christ has performed and completed all the work necessary to our salvation, it is unnecessary for us to perform any further work; and the performance of any such work in order to merit salvation is an affront to God.

SAVED “UNTO GOOD WORKS”

It is precisely here-with the statement “created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them”-that we confront the teaching that refutes a second heresy, one held by many supposed Bible-believing people. They are fully aware of the Scriptural teaching that salvation cannot be merited by mankind. They eschew-as God does-any endeavor by mankind to elicit God’s salvific favor by performing good works. Some of them have so legitimately opposed the teaching that good works of humanity can somehow merit salvation that they have reached the unscriptural conclusion that good works have no relationship to salvation whatsoever. They believe, for example, that it is possible for a genuine Christian to live a lifetime without conforming himself to the teaching of Scripture or performing good works. That idea, however, is almost as heretical as the good-works-for-salvation teaching of Roman Catholics and cultists. For 2:10 states that the very reason we were chosen to be regenerated was to perform good works which God ordained beforehand (that is, before our salvation) that we should walk in them. One aspect of God’s aim in saving us is the practice of good works. The New Testament is thus filled with exhortations to Christians to perform good works; consequently, if we do not perform those good works we are not fulfilling the purpose of God’s saving us in the first place.

Those Bible-believers who embrace this heresy may cautiously agree with my statements to this point. Notwithstanding, they adamantly oppose the Scriptural implication flowing from the specific teaching of this verse, namely, that one who does not perform good works is not, in fact, a genuine believer. But both the logic and the Scripture on this point are irresistible. If our ultimate salvation and destiny are certain because of God’s pre-mundane electing and predestinating acts, our performance of good works are certain because of God’s previous ordination “that we should walk in them.” Admittedly, in some cases the term ordain can be understood as referring to a desirable rather than actual decree (for example, 1 Cor. 9:14), but “ordained” as used in the sense of 2:10 can mean nothing other than God’s firm determination, by virtue of the teaching of other Scriptures. Hebrews 12:14 states that without holiness “no man shall see the Lord.” (It is vain to argue that this holiness refers to the judicial holiness or righteousness imputed to us by God on account of Christ’s work, for in this passage the author of Hebrews has been speaking clearly of personal godliness.) Col. 1:21-23 indicates that our salvation and, specifically, our reconciliation, are contingent on our continuing “in the faith grounded and settled,” and not “mov[ing] away from the hope of the gospel.” This verse is certainly not to be understood in the Arminian sense: i.e., it is not stating that those who move away from the hope of the gospel somehow forfeit their salvation. It is simply indicating they were never genuinely reconciled in the first place, and their lack of good works is only an evidence of lack of salvation. And who will attempt to argue against the invincible logic of James 2 that faith cannot save one who does not perform good works (v. 14), and that faith apart from works is “dead,” that is, non-existent (v. 17) ?

Some do, however, resist the teaching that good works are an essential corollary of salvation. They argue, for example, that Lot was a righteous man, despite the fact that he never performed good works. He seems to be the only Scriptural example they can produce to support their view that salvation does not lead inevitably to good works. Perhaps they have not taken into account that God “winked at” the ignorance of many under the Old Testament dispensation (Ac. 17:30), or that Lot did in fact evidence a small degree of holiness when finally urged by the message and actions of his angelic visitors, or that he was distressed by the ungodliness of Sodom (2 Pet. 2:7). But they cannot provide any post-ascension examples of Christians who refused to practice good works, for the New Testament record everywhere assumes God’s children will unavoidably perform good works.

Some argue that the statement of v. 10, “before ordained” does not guarantee the performance of good works by those who are converted. Zane Hodges, for example, states, “sometimes this text is misunderstood. Sometimes it is read as though it meant that the believer will most certainly walk in the good works God has prepared for him. But Paul does not say that at all.” Rather, Hodges contends, Paul is revealing “God’s purpose for us. God wants us to walk in good works. Whether we do so or not depends on the many biblical factors which are relevant to spiritual development.” Hodges compares the remark in John 3:17, “that the world through [Christ] might be saved” to that of Ephesians 2, “that we should walk in them [good works],” [Hodges, Absolutely Free (Dallas: Redencion Viva, 1989) p. 73.]. It is true that this ordination, or preparation beforehand, unto good works does not of itself indicate the performance of those good works as guaranteed. But when linked to a preceding expression “created in Christ Jesus unto good works,” it does indeed indicate that the fulfillment of those good works is inevitable. The following is the force of Paul’s logic: We were created in Christ for the very purpose of performing good works, and those works are designed for us beforehand to fulfill.

Nonetheless, the most compelling argument that the remarks in v. 10 teach that salvation guarantees good works is the entire context of Paul’s statement. His entire logic concerning salvation in Ephesians 2 portrays God as active and man as passive. Note “hath he quickened,” “raised us up,” “made nigh,” “he might reconcile,” “came and preached,” etc. In other words, the performance of good works mentioned in v. 10 is just as much guaranteed as our “sit[ting] together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” in v. 6.

Opponents of the view of this paper charge that the performance of good works cannot be made the litmus test of true belief because Christians may make an inaccurate judgment about another professed Christian during a time of specific weakness in the latter’s life, or because human limitation in general renders us incapable of such accurate judgment. Yet those who understand the Scriptural teaching concerning the inevitability of good works in a Christian’s life do not deny that we may be mistaken in our evaluation of the lives of others, or even that it is possible for us to become Pharisaic and judgmental. Our assertion is not that we will always be able to decide infallibly on the basis of an individual’s works if he is a genuine believer, but rather that true believers inevitably perform good works. The fact that we may be mistaken (even frequently) about another’s spiritual condition is no refutation of the Scriptural teaching that good works flow necessarily from a saved life. The fact that we may incorrectly judge has no bearing on the teaching of Scripture.

CONCLUSION

Let’s review. (1) Salvation cannot be secured by any human merit, including the performance of any good works. (2) The reason it is unnecessary to perform good works in order to secure salvation is that God himself has through the work of Christ performed all the work necessary. (3) One of the very reasons God saved us is so we would perform good works, and if we do not perform good works we are only indicating we are not truly converted.

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